There’s no way to discuss roleplaying system design without bringing up Ron Edwards. I’ve already written about his essays on fantasy heartbreakers. Today I want to discuss his “System Does Matter” essay, and where that sits with me 15 years after he wrote it. In short, I think you need to focus on players, not rules, even where I concede the importance of coherent mechanics.
For those who aren’t familiar with the essay, Edwards makes the case that every roleplaying system takes a stance. He defines three, and states his belief that no system can do more than one well. You’ll see this referred to a lot as “GNS Theory” based on the stances: gamist, narrativist, and simulationist. A year or so later Edwards walked it back a bit, but the theory lingers on in game design circles. Some people love it, some hate it, but it’s been a good starting point for a lot of interesting conversations.
Focus on Players, Not Rules
What I agree with is that you need to know the problem you’re solving for. If you’re designing something meant to be simulationist, either emulating the real world or creating a consistent operating system for your fictional world, go all-in on that. When you’re crafting something meant to feel like a board game, where the lies in leveraging the rules and achieving victory conditions, lean all the way into it.
My work would clearly fall under what Edwards defines as “narrativist”. Edwards was also a leader in the story games movement, so his biases show throughout the essay. I center everything on character development and storytelling. Achieving story goals defines what success and failure mean, not die rolls. Consistency in how things work in the world is dependent upon how things are described.
No matter where you fall on system preferences, though, it still comes down to the players. All styles of play are valid. All systems that accomplish what they set out to do are valid. If you give a player an apple and they want an orange, though, you’ve got a problem. You can’t force the apple on them and expect them to enjoy it. There’s no way you can gaslight them into believing it’s an orange. That’s disingenuous as best, disrespectful at worst.
If the players want something that the system doesn’t support, they’re not got to be into it. They will try to impose their will on it, and it will fail. A good guide can turn a simulationist or gamist system into a narrativist one by overlaying those values and tropes, but it’s not going to flow like a system designed for that style of play. The greatest game ever design isn’t going to make them happy, or turn your campaign into a success, if it doesn’t scratch the right itch. Know the players, and find the system that suits their needs.
About Dancing Lights Press
Dancing Lights Press publishes story games that embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation. Our print books are affordable, at $10 or less. The 6×9 digest format makes them convenient to carry around. The spotlight belongs on the creativity of the players as they converse and collaborate on plot, worldbuilding, and character development. Roleplaying is an activity, not a book. Our titles are merely part of the delivery system.